By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
“This Modern World,” the biting satirical cartoon by the pseudonymous Tom Tomorrow, recently proposed streamlining the American political process.
“Take elections,” mused the strip’s narrator. “They’re such an inefficient way to purchase a government! That’s why we’ll be replacing them with eBay auctions! Simple and straightforward — highest bidder wins! You probably won’t even notice the difference.”
Such cynical assessments — that when it comes picking national leaders, money matters most — are common. And sadly, they’re not unfounded.
Take elections for U.S. Congress. Please.
In general elections since 2000, Wisconsin has seen four contested U.S. Senate races and 47 matchups for the House of Representatives. All but twice, the candidate with the most money won, according to OpenSecrets.org, a website run by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Both exceptions occurred in 2010. Republican upstart Ron Johnson bested Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, despite being outraised $20.8 million to $15.2 million — arguably still a lot of cash (more than half from Johnson himself). And GOP challenger Reid Ribble won with just $1.3 million against Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen’s $2.1 million. (These numbers do not include spending by outside groups.)
Elections are not auctions and even high-spending incumbents sometimes lose. But the correlation between raising the most cash and getting the most votes is strong.
This year, four Republicans are vying for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl. Two of them, former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, have each raised about $2.2 million though the first half of the year.
A recent poll puts Thompson out front heading into the Aug. 14 primary, but with businessman Eric Hovde nipping at his heels. Hovde has raised only about $350,000 from outside sources but poured $4 million into his own campaign. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald lags far behind, in polls and fundraising, and now hangs his election hopes on low turnout.
Whoever survives the primary will face Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who has raised $6.7 million so far, in the Nov. 6 general election.
The races for Wisconsin’s eight House seats include a hot primary in District 2 between state Reps. Mark Pocan and Kelda Helen Roys, both Madison Democrats. Pocan has raised $734,550 to Roy’s $392,393, federal filings show. The victor will face Republican Chad Lee, who’s raised $33,550.
Some challengers are raising large sums but still falling well short of even. In District 8, Jamie Wall has raked in $687,023, but incumbent Ribble has $1.5 million. In District 7, former state Sen. Patrick Kreitlow has $775,440, against Rep. Sean Duffy’s $1.8 million. And in District 1, Rob Zerban has managed to raise $1.2 million — but his opponent, Rep. Paul Ryan, has raised $4.2 million since his last election and now has $5.4 million on hand.
Of the remaining races, several are fundraising blowouts. In District 6, Republican Tom Petri has nearly $1 million on hand for a race against an unfunded primary challenger and nonexistent Democrat. In District 3, Democrat Ron Kind has $1.5 million to GOP challenger Ray Boland’s $53,098. In District 4, Democrat Gwen Moore has raised $609,890 and spent all but $97,545, which is still eight times what her GOP challenger, Dan Sebring, has snared overall.
And in District 5, Republican James Sensenbrenner has raised $415,080; his Democratic challenger, David Heaster, has raised no funds and uses his entertaining website to urge that well-wishers donate to their favorite worthy cause, not him. “Could you imagine what good we could do with all of the millions of dollars” spent on elections? he asks.
It’s a good question. All told, the state’s active candidates for Congress and Senate have raised more than $30 million through June 30, with more than four months to go.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.